Thursday, 9 April 2015

A Red & Pleasant Land + Isle of the Unknown (Double Review)

I have a double review for you today.

After not buying anything from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, ever, but repeatedly hearing things* about the brand I decided the time was impending for me to taste of the fruit. Today was a good day because... *drum roll*

...this arrived!


A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden

But what's in the box?


A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden

When the bubble wrap was removed, this is what I saw:


A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden

Yes, those of astute disposition will surely recognise A Red & Pleasant Land by Zak S., alongside Geoffrey McKinney's Isle of the Unknown. I have had my eye (or consciousness) on McKinney's Carcosa for awhile too, and finally put in an order from Noble Knight Games. James Raggi (owner of LotFP) got these pictured books sent off quickly, beating my Noble Knight order to arrive, even though Carcosa was ordered a week or so before these books! For the record, James will also honour customers with a free PDF download copy of any LotFP book you have purchased in the past, provided you can produce some proof of purchase. Consequently I have been reading through these three books via PDF before they even landed on the fair shores of New Zealand, and already have a good notion of their contents. Although I digress, I have found LotFP to be a good company to deal with thus far, both in speed of delivery and my personal dealings with Mr Raggi. Tick that box.

First things first. These products make some presumptions, namely that:

A) you'll be using their system Lamentations of the Flame Princess - Weird Fantasy Role-Playing, which seems fairly similar to OD&D/Basic. 

B) that you're not a G or PG rated kind of player, and don't mind a bit of madness/darkness in your games.

The first is certainly not a deal breaker. Any gamer with any knowledge of role-playing games should have no difficulty translating these products to their game of choice. The second is much harder to get around, you either like an M or 18+ style of gaming or you do not. Having said that, if one opens their mind a little, and actually digs into these products, you'll certainly find inspiration in abundance. And of course, not all of it, nor even the majority of the content is that extreme. That Raggi has been rather successful as a publisher suggests there is a market for it, and alongside Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea provides a niche of gaming I personally really enjoy. 

A Red & Pleasant Land:


A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden, Dungeons & Dragons
Author/Artist: Zak S.
Price: 35.75€
Format: Print + PDF
Page count: 187
System: Lamentations of the Flame Princess (implied)
Year: 2014

The Good
An old adage goes something like 'don't judge a book by its cover', yet that is what we inevitably do. I guess that's as good a place to start as any, thus I will. The cover reminds me of a novel from the 19th or early 20th century - reminiscent of a Charles Dickens volume, or a novella you may expect to find in an antiquated bookstore. The difference being it is very 'new' looking, and is extremely vibrant. It is red (surprise!), and embossed with gold. Sitting on one's bookshelf, it would be indistinguishable as an RPG product, and I like that; it's very thematic. The image on the front features a rendition of what I can only assume to be an 'Alice'. It contains a red, cloth bookmark sewn into the spine, while the back is simply red. In sum, a suiting cover to match the book's title.

Within the volume itself, the artwork, illustrations, maps and layout is impressive, most of it being drawn by Zak himself (he is a professional artist). Thus we have interesting images that look like this 
                            |
                           V
A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden
Is this a D&D map? I mean is this D&D at all? Well, it's not not D&D! And this really captures my overall sentiments on the book. It is a retelling of the classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, appropriated for a D&D context. Please, let me stress this though, it goes far beyond the Alice narrative, drawing upon Transylvanian myth, accompanied with Zak's wild imagination, and amusing off-beat prose. In my opinion the artwork does as much to lure me into this setting as the writing does: both doing so equally well. It does not read like a D&D supplement, but it oozes D&D anyway. This is what Gygax meant when he said something along the lines of 'don't let us do all the imagining for you'. It follows the DIY D&D ethic, and presents the reader with something challenging; something that will invariably alter the way you approach your D&D game. That is, if you let it.

Even if you never use a single word from within this book, the artwork alone is worth it for me. But you get so much more than artwork. This is an intriguing locale (called Voivodja), which can either be used within an existing campaign (which is how I'd likely use it), or as a complete setting of its own. There are a four warring vampire houses of different colours, with varying agendas, and hapless humanity has been caught in the middle: or rather, eaten in the middle. The remnants of humanity are hiding, and due to the physics of the place, one's sense of reality is very fluid. Among various player handouts, maps, adventure locations, a new character class called 'The Alice', and quirky beasts, monsters and people, are tables for determining random things within Voivodja, and plenty of 'fluff' material for how life works on this phantasmagorical plane. 

A player handout:


A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden
A monster illustration and description of the Jabberwock:


An area map:
A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden

The Bad
Although I don't believe there's anything 'bad' about this book, I will say the utility of it may vary depending on who you are, and what style of game you prefer. For me this is not a problem: I read it as an ideas book, not a how-to. But for those of you who want to buy something you can immediately use (like a Forgotten Realms setting or something) I imagine this book may fit into the 'what the hell do I do with this?' category. I may be misrepresenting it slightly, because even if you don't use this 'whole cloth', there is plenty of useable stuff to mine from it. I plan on using this pretty liberally in my new AS&SH campaign, as I think it fits the overall weirdness and implied setting. I can see people whinging about its utility, so you have been warned. Though personally I think it's a pretty brilliant approach to a tired genre of game products...

Final Thoughts
If you like your games weird, or if you want a bit of fresh air, then I would recommend the purchase of this book. If you let it, it will speak to you in ways beyond what the words or art alone present; that is, Zak's methods will challenge your status-quo of DMing and beg the question: what else have I overlooked in my game, and what else about this hobby is tired? In a strange kind of way, this has taught me as much about DMing as Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide did. At one stage D&D was innovative and new, this book is a return to reclaiming that. 



Isle of the Unknown:


A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden
Author: Geoffrey McKinney
Price: 22.00€
Format: Print + PDF
Page count: 125
System: Lamentations of the Flame Princess (implied)
Year: 2011

Let me preface this review by saying Isle of the Unknown was a product I had wanted for awhile, but due to other (mostly negative) reviews I read online I was partially deterred. When I was ordering A Red & Pleasant Land I thought: 'screw it, Isle of the Unknown is not that expensive, and it will probably save a bit on shipping getting two books instead of one'. With that disclaimer out of the way, and with my own prejudices made transparent, let us commence.

The Good
The artwork, like the other Lamentations of the Flame Princess products, is overall commendable. The cover image is colourful, vibrant and lush, with high saturation and warmth. The cover was what actually piqued my interest initially, before I bought it, due to its vivid presentation. The binding and pages are of good quality. The internal artwork and layout is aesthetically pleasing, and the inside maps are reasonable (though nowhere near the calibre of some of Wizards of the Coast's 5th edition maps). In fact, my own amateur mapping skills parallel the quality in my opinion. 

Map photograph is upside down, sorry!


A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden
The contents of this book, are presented somewhat as a hex-crawl. Each of the 330 land hexes contain a point of interest - such as a town, a monster, a statue, or a magic-user. I really like the full-page colour illustrations included for the NPCs of note. 

Some of the monsters are quite inventive, and all are presented as being unique or never 'taken from any previously published role-playing game product'. I believe this, but it doesn't really impress me for reasons I'll talk about later. The notable magic-users and clerics often have some interesting background details, as do some of the towns. The statues are generally reasonable too. This book provides some genuinely interesting adventure ideas. 


A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan WaldenA Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden

I would be inclined to do as the author suggests with this work: 'cherry pick'. I believe that's what the author himself does, and this makes sense, especially due to the varying quality of the monsters presented herein. Which leads me to...

The Bad
Although I applaud McKinney in his attempt to 'ensure freshness and a sense of wonder and newness as your players explore a realm that is truly unknown', I feel this work is lacking in several fundamental areas. Firstly, I cannot help but compare it to his other work: Carcosa. Though I intend to review Carcosa at some stage, I will with brevity, say right here that the latter feels like a more comprehensive product; that is, Carcosa is more entirely useable. Isle of the Unknown by contrast, often feels piecemeal - slapped together to fulfil the full quota of 330 land hexes. The construction and presentation of the monsters feel a bit like a mad haberdasher sewing bits of animals or monsters to each other, creating a kind of Frankensteinian freak of nature. Like this guy:


A Red & Pleasant Land Review, Zak Smith, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Isle of the Unknown, Geoffrey McKinney, Corey Ryan Walden


I mean, a weasel with four vipers growing out of it? No wonder he looks so sad and confused. I like weird, and I like off-beat, but the execution of this reminded me of someone trying to be different for the sake of different, without any real sense of inspiration or muse. There is no solidifying theme across this work, besides the vague historical references, and the idea that everything in the book has to be somehow 'unique'. Honestly, this work would have benefitted from some screening and revision. Had a bit more time been taken to refine this, I believe an entirely different product could have been released. One with exceedingly more practical application.

Final Thoughts
Overall it may sound like I don't like Isle of the Unknown. I wouldn't distinctly say that's true, but I also don't know whether this book will retain a long-term place on my gaming shelf. I intend to pick bits and pieces from it, or use it for quick inspiration, particularly if I'm feeling a bit dry creatively. Segments of this work have a certain charm about them, and although I feel it lacks overall cohesiveness there are some discretely creative aspects I do like. I doubt I'd use many of the monsters, but I may be surprised.

Would I recommend someone purchase this? If I only had $22 to spend on a gaming product, I wouldn't. Buy Savage WorldsSlumbering Ursine Dunes or Yoon-Suin: The Purple Land instead. But if you have a bit of extra cash and curiosity I doubt you'll be too disappointed with Isle of the Unknown, especially if you're already aware of these critiques. I wasn't disappointed, because I knew what to expect. It's a book I wanted to love, and despite its flaws and cumbersome wackiness it still retains some of its charm. I'll try it at the table, and if it plays differently than it reads, I'll be sure to let you know!



* It seems the 'community' is somewhat undecided on how to digest these products: they're kind of a 'fuck you' product, and it seems that certain people are a little sensitive about that. To be fair, some of the themes and content of certain LotFP products do tackle rather unsavoury topics, but I personally do not care how people game in their spare time, nor do I feel any particular censorship on gaming products is required.